Sunday, 20 October 2019

Zombieland - Double Tap



The Tappening

Zombieland - Double Tap
Directed by Ruben Fleischer
2019 USA
UK cinema release print.


Wow. it’s been ten years already, to the month apparently, since the first Zombieland hit cinemas and received a warm welcome from audiences across the globe. It had a certain easy charm and a lot of gut wrenching humour in the movie but it’s taken a while to get to this sequel, which is also set quite a time after the first film, with the four main actors reprising their roles... Woody Harrelson as Talahasse, Jesse Eisenberg as Columbus, Emma Stone as Wichita and Abigail Breslin as Little Rock. Normally when a sequel takes a long time in its gestation period, the cast and crew are always quick to say that they were waiting until the script was properly developed and right and, you know what? I wouldn’t have minded it a bit if they’d have claimed the same thing about this one because, if anything, Zombieland - Double Tap is even funnier and at least as smart and self aware as the first movie.

This film starts with our four friends making their way through the post apocalyptic Zombieland and using The White House as their home before things get messed up and the two girls take off again. Columbus re-finds love... okay, re-finds sex... when he discovers the hilariously airheaded Madison, played by Zoey Deutch and things get even sillier as the writers do not use her as a throwaway character and she has a role to play in this... including making Wichita jealous when she regroups with the other two.

Why does Wichita come back? Well, Little Rock has found love with a peaceful but impossibly naive pacifist who is taking her to the ‘safe haven’ of Babylon, populated by peace loving folk who burn all their weapons and turn them into jewellery. Trouble with that is... things are getting even more dangerous out there in Zombieland, with a new breed of hard-to-kill zombies beginning to appear. So the remaining four go on a road trip to catch up with her and, on the way...

... they meet a few new characters, in addition to Madison. There’s Luke Wilson and Thomas Middleditch, for example, playing bizarrely similar characters to Talahasse and Columbus, which may seem like a bit of an obvious ploy for comedy antics and, indeed, it is... but like the first film, the writers are well aware of what they are doing and make sure the audience know they are not trying to dumb it down for the viewing public. The scenes with these two are actually very funny and they don’t outstay their welcome. Also, one of my favourite actresses, Rosario Dawson, gets a pretty decent role here as another new character, Nevada... so I was happy.

There are quite a few shout backs to the original movie in this one... so if you haven’t seen it in a while, you might like to re-watch it quickly before going to see this... like a wonderful scene where our main protagonists find out that Columbus’ accidental killing of Bill Murray (playing himself) in the first movie has spawned a verb amongst the surviving human population in those areas. There’s also Columbus’ rules and various typographic shenanigans lit up on screen via the use of CGI which really move the film along and tug at the funny bone in some cases (try and read them all because there are some great throwaway lines hidden in the words here).

Now, it would be true there are no real surprises in the movie... a ploy where something happens to one of the characters halfway through the story to cause their hasty exit from the film for a while didn’t fool me one bit, for example, with exactly what I thought was actually going on (down to the specific manifestation of symptoms... trying not to spoil it here) actually turning out to be the case. However, because the script is so intelligent in terms of the dialogue and the way that dialogue functions, which seems to be a trait built into the cynicism of the characters, thus allowing the audience to know that they are ‘in on the joke’... means that even the ‘not so surprising surprises’ are not exactly disappointing and, honestly, just add to the fun here. In fact, I rarely laugh at comedies (even when I love them) but this one did get a good number of chuckles from me during the screening.

Also, like the first one, the film doesn’t skimp on the goriness normally associated with the zombie genre (even zombie comedies like this one) and, although it does kind of 'normalise' the violence somewhat... in a non-jaded manner... it does also get a few laughs on occasion, especially when Columbus is running us through the zombie-types which they have now become known to the group as.

And, this was a near perfect movie for me. If I had to say the one thing that disappointed me about this one, then I’d have to say it’s that there are no references to Twinkie Bars in the sequel, given that they played such an important role in the first film. Honestly though, it doesn’t really matter here because the quality of the script is such that I’m willing to forgive small character continuity traits like this and, as Columbus points out in his running voice-over narrative at the start of the film, the characters have moved on a little since the first one. There was even a true moment of suspense towards the end of the film when the fate of one of the main characters hangs in the balance... which was pretty good going from the director here, since it’s a comedy.

So there you go. That’s me more or less done on Zombieland - Double Tap other than to say, if you liked the first movie then you’ll probably really like this one and, a quick word to stay around past the credits... there are mid credits and post credits extra scenes, both a shout out to a specific, audience pleasing sequence in the first film so, you know, don’t run for the exits when the end credits start playing out. Also, if you do stay, know that it’s actually Woody Harrelson covering a song over the end credits too so... you know... stay in your seat for a bit.

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Gemini Man



Game Of Clones

Gemini Man
Directed by Ang Lee
2019 China/USA
UK cinema release print.


Not to be confused with the famous 1976 TV series of the same name, Gemini Man is the latest movie from the great director Ang Lee. It stars the always watchable Will Smith as Henry, the somewhat clichéd figure of a top government assassin who, on retirement, is seen as a ‘loose end’ on a recent job and is being hunted down by a new top government assassin, sent against him by Clive Owen (who is playing the real villain of the movie). The slight novelty is that the man sent to kill Henry is a younger clone of himself, also portrayed in the movie by Mr. Smith, using that de-aging CGI trick that Hollywood have been leaning on of late. Actually, the de-ageing for most of the sequences here doesn’t look half bad (or half as bad as I’ve seen it looking) but, for some reason, the epilogue scene in the movie doesn’t seem to be able to match the earlier stuff at all and, in this last sequence, the clone barely looks like Smith apart from in assorted shots. Don’t know why that is but it’s done well for most of the story so I’m not that bothered.

Ang Lee is a director who seldom disappoints and he’s a bit of a hard one to pin down in terms of a particular cinematic niche. I loved what he did with The Ice Storm and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and, heck, I even liked his version of Hulk which, in some ways, was a bit better than The Incredible Hulk, albeit with a puzzlingly rubbish, metaphorical fight at the end, from what I can remember.

It wouldn’t be fair to say Gemini Man is disappointing, as I’ve heard some people say... it’s entertaining enough and has some nice action sequences and scenes which build a relationship between the various characters (not necessarily what you are thinking). That being said... it’s not entirely unforgettable either and I think the possible problem here is with people’s pre-conceptions of what an Ang Lee’s movie is going to deliver to them. Everybody expects this exceptional artist to do something great with each movie and Gemini Man is not great... but it is very good so why can’t we all just be satisfied with that?

Also, the moral issues, not to mention the relationship issues between certain characters and sheer technical achievements to make this tale come alive are not to be sniffed at. Lee and his team have done some significant work here... I think this one might get some festival revivals a few decades from now.

Asides from the always wonderful Mr. Smith in the movie, we have him joined by Clive Owen, as I mentioned, perhaps somewhat wasted in the most clichéd character of the lot here but, again, always watchable so he certainly doesn’t hurt the film as much as some of the lines written for him.

Then we have one of my favourite modern actresses who I’ve seen in a fair few sci-fi and horror projects, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, playing what I will not refer to here as the love interest of the film, purely because... although a strong bond develops between her and the original template for the clone, Henry... with Will Smith being 51 and her being in her 30s, the writers have been surprisingly respectful of the not so visible age gap between the two, for a Hollywood movie at least (Will Smith always looks perpetually in his late 20s to me). She really knocks it out the park in this film and, thankfully, has a lot to do here rather than just play second fiddle to the male characters. She is the one ‘working things out’ and, also, she has a really great and somewhat brutal fight scene with a henchman that really shows that she can look the part and is capable of being a modern day action hero herself... something which I hope some wiley Hollywood producers will realise when they see this movie and hopefully commission someone to write some big budget action movies built around this actress.

Finally, we have the inclusion of Benedict Wong. I loved him as Wong in Doctor Strange (reviewed here) and Avengers Infinity War (reviewed here) and he’s as charming in this as he is in those. He plays the character the hero always needs from his past to ‘call in a couple of favours’ and he fulfills that role admirably here. A stylish actor with a big personality who I’m hoping we’ll see in a lot more high profile projects in the coming years.

Okay, so the stage is set and the film, as you would expect from Lee, looks fantastic on an aesthetic level. It would be true to say that the whole thing trundles along with no real surprises up its sleeve and that, for me, is a great shame. There are a couple of blisteringly good action sequences here where the sound design really comes into its own and with Lorne Balfe’s score (which I shall order on CD when it’s released tomorrow) keeping up with things nicely although, I really need to hear it as a stand alone because some of it does get a little buried in the mix. Alas, even the third act reveal of ‘someone’ is already something you can kinda see coming a mile off and, honestly, when they deliberately hide a character's face, I don’t know why Hollywood people actually think the audience are going to be in any way remotely surprised as to the identity of the character underneath... it doesn’t makes sense that this is saved as some kind of reveal here.

Also, since the film touches on the manipulation of DNA to edit out the stuff not needed, it never really tackles the issue at the heart of the movie which, in fairness, I only just realised with this particular film... why would you give the clone of Will Smith the same huge, sticky out ears? Honestly, I never noticed this about Will Smith before but they are a quite prominent feature and, unless they give a clone powers of super hearing, why would you leave those in the DNA edit? Oh well, that’s one thing I’ll think about in years to come when I remember this movie, I guess.

At the end of the day, Gemini Man is nothing too special but, it does try to tackle the issues brought up by the plot set-up in an intelligent manner, looks fantastic, has great performances and is a fairly fun time. So if you want something to go and take a look at which is, at the very least, quite entertaining with some intense action sequences and with a strong sense of Smith’s brand of ‘good guy chivalry’ running through it, then you could do a lot worse than give this film some of your time. It’s a pretty okay night out at the cinema... and what’s wrong with that?

Monday, 14 October 2019

Joker


Attack Of The Clowns

Joker
Directed by Todd Phillips
2019 Canada/USA
UK cinema release print.


Warning: Minor spoilers about a subway scene here.

Cesar Romero did it better.

Heath Ledger did a pretty good job too but it’s kind of hard to compare the portrayals of the fair few actors who have played The Joker on screen over the years since they’ve mostly been written slightly differently for each incarnation and, certainly in the case of this new variant of the character played by Joaquin Phoenix, he’s a very different beast altogether.

Set in the 1980s, this new stand alone stab at an ‘origin’ film for The Joker is purported to be inspired by Alan Moore’s groundbreaking 80s graphic novella The Killing Joke but... I really don’t see that. In that comic the iconic character had more or less the same origin he had in the majority of the previous comics (and many of the big screen versions of the character) which is something this new iteration does absolutely nothing to parallel. It kinda makes you wonder why they bothered calling it Joker and tying it into DC in a way but, they do at least use the iconic make-up here and there are some other overlaps from the world of Batman in the movie.

I remember when I first heard about this project and I thought that it was kind of a bad idea. Back in the 1970s, DC had tried launching a stand alone comic of The Joker and it got cancelled after nine issues. Ironically and, presumably, to tie in with this new movie which also seems to be trying to distance itself as much as possible from the comic book version of the character, the company has recently released Issue 10 containing the artwork and story originally scheduled for that issue way back in the 1970s (I might review this short run of comics sometime soon on this blog, I think). So, the point I’m trying to make is that I wasn’t expecting a film about a super villain from DC to make much of a splash (even though I’m probably the only person in the world to like the Catwoman spin-off movie with Halle Berry) and I’m not the biggest fan of Phoenix either, although I’ve warmed to him of late due to his participation in You Were Never Really Here (reviewed by me here).

It’s interesting that Phoenix should follow that movie with this one because they both have a lot of echoes of Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver about them... although it’s even more blatant in the former movie. Critics who have cited Scorcese’s Taxi Driver and The King Of Comedy as major influences on Joker have been absolutely right to do so. You can see the mentally damaged Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver (not to mention some Gotham street scenes which could pass for Bickle’s nightmarish perception of New York in the 1970s) and there’s definitely a strong link to The King Of Comedy here, with Joker obsessed to an extent with a talk show host here which manifests itself in almost exactly the same way as they did in the Scorcese movie (flights of imagination presented as reality etc). Ironically though, it’s Robert De Niro himself, who had the obsession with the comedian played by Jerry Lewis in The King Of Comedy, who is the target of The Joker in this film so... what goes around comes around, I guess.

Joker itself is, I have to admit, a pretty good movie. I was very surprised at the quality of the narrative conviction shown in the performances here... Phoenix is great, as is Zazie Beetz, DeNiro and Frances Conroy as the older version of The Joker’s mother. Conroy also had a role in that Catwoman movie with Halle Berry too so, I’m glad this production was not cursed by her involvement in that one.

The film is also impressive in that it portrays a very small scale story (writ large with bigger implications) and it’s consistently, tonally, a downward spiral. A grinding, wearing depiction of down beats with a character who has no real grasp on reality and who is portrayed, for the most part, as a victim. I’ve already had a disagreement with somebody as to whether The Joker is depicted as evil in this film. I think not... he’s just mentally unhinged which, I suspect, takes away a person’s ability to make a choice between right and wrong and so, I think this is more of a monster... a human monster, for sure but, a monster nonetheless. Indeed, one could say the writer/director is even trying to illicit sympathy and empathy for the character with the way he portrays all of life’s ‘tough breaks’ as a force which finally flicks the switch in the title character’s head. In Bonnie And Clyde, Arthur Penn did this much more subtly using the language of film to win over the audience to the title characters by withholding establishing shots and long shots until the first crime is being committed. Here, Phillips and Phoenix are somewhat less subtle by piling on the despair and pathos of the character.

Indeed, the first set of murders The Joker commits are something the audience are really, I suspect, rooting to happen. He’s just been terrorised and beaten by a gang of rich, yuppie thugs who are the absolute opposite of sympathetic character types... you kind of want them to get their just dessert and  when they do it kind of puts you on his side when it happens. Later on, when he slashes someone’s throat before stabbing him in the eye, the damage is already done with the build up and framing of the character that, even though it’s a totally unjustified killing, you kind of shrug it off. In fact, in the audience I was with, in the aftermath of this very scene, when he lets a distraught character go free instead of murdering him because he was always nice to him in the past, I heard one of the ladies in the audience utter the words “Aww, so sweet.”, so, yeah, there’s empathy and identification going on with the title character in this for sure but, you know me, I’m not one to be on the side of censorship. Art is art and people will interpret it how they will, dependent on their psychological make up so, it’s good that this film can blur the lines between villain and ‘everyman’ character in some ways. At least it throws up the issue for discussion.

Another way in which the movie seems to ‘normalise’ the psychopathic killer, to some extent, is to make his laugh a psychological condition which the character even has to highlight to people by carrying a card around with him, explaining he’s not laughing at them it’s just a neurological malfunction. Gone, though, are the character's keen wits that allow him, in the comic, to be a master of crime. This film has much less in common with popular, lionised super villains of past literature and film such as the exploits of Fantomas and Fu Manchu and seems to be a much more willing spiritual cousin of those 1930s hoodlum and gangster pictures that Jimmy Cagney and Edward G. Robinson used to make. So not like the keen mind of the comics at all.

That being said, the film does take things from the long, comic book history but the biggest thing I think it takes is probably the ‘Cult Of The Batman’ which was at the forefront of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns... except it’s filched for The Joker instead. This ‘movement’ isn’t even something the character deliberately instigates or has any control over, although there’s a wonderful scene near the end of the film (which I think is where the film should have ended) where The Joker is confronted by his ‘children’, so to speak, and plays to them. It feels a lot like the end scene from Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes (reviewed here) and I think it’s quite effective.

Another thing from the comics, of course, is the Wayne family. There’s a nice set up to the idea that The Joker might actually be Batman’s step brother and, although it’s thrown out as the reality of the situation before the end, there’s also evidence within the film that this is just a cover story (take a look at the back of the photo of Arther Fleck aka The Joker and his mother and tell me whose initials they are). Similarly, the familiar old Batman origin story which gets done here, is portrayed as an indirect result of the actions of The Joker so, once again, we have the idea that the creation of The Batman was only possible with existence of The Joker. This yin and yang relationship about the two characters is pretty much the only thing I can really see as being taken directly from Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke although, I have to say, it’s probably been thirty years or more since I last read it so, that’s something I need to get into again.

There’s some beautiful cinematography here too. The many online critics of the use of orange and teal to light a scene will not be happy with this because the film is full of it... but it works well and I loved the way the colour pallette sometimes started out as one thing and then suddenly became a little schizophrenic, possibly as a visual metaphor for what is going on in Arthur’s head. For example, a shot bathed in orange where Arthur is sitting at a desk towards the other end of a long shot is suddenly changed when the camera slowly shifts slightly to the right, allowing the kitchen door and window space to come into view at an angle, which is completely lit in teal. Stuff like this make the movie fun to watch when, perhaps, the tone and content seem a little too bleak to be able to get anything positive out of it.

Whatever you make of it though, the film looks good, has some fantastic performances and has a nice score by Hildur Guðnadóttir, which is something I’ll definitely have to pick up on CD at some point soon. There’s also a nice undercurrent of reality versus what’s going on in the mind of Arthur Fleck and the ‘twist reveal’ actually caught me out for once... so that’s good. Admittedly, the film maybe goes on a little longer than it should and the final coda is a bit redundant but the very last shot revealing the probability that something very violent just went down 'off camera' is quite effective and it’s not a terrible ending... I just thought it was better ending up with The Joker playing to his cult following rather than give it almost a ‘crime doesn't pay’ undercurrent at the end. Not that The Joker, unlike his comic book and previous big screen counterparts, is interested in crime at all. Only with killing people, by this point. I do suspect that the ending has been added after either test screenings or studio interference to soften the tone somewhat... the location of the character makes no sense after what we’ve seen in the sequence prior to this (when he has so many admiring people in the crowd ready to help him).

If you have been sitting on the fence about Joker... I would urge you to give this one a go. It’s at the very least a really nice looking film and it’s very well put together. And, even if you don’t like the film, it’s simplistic approach to some very questionable viewpoints on this kind of character and his portrayal on cinema screens is perhaps something you’d like to have an opinion about. I know I really liked this film and though I wouldn’t see it again at the cinema, I would be happy to take another shot at it on Blu Ray next year and see what else I can spot in it. Definitely something I’d recommend you to go and see, if you get the chance to get to the cinema in the next week or two.

Sunday, 13 October 2019

Colour Out Of Space



Drag Me To Well

Colour Out Of Space
(aka Color Out Of Space)

Portugal/USA 2019 Directed by Richard Stanley
Screening at the London Film Festival 8th October 2019


Okay, so the sixth and final film of my London Film Festival experience this year was also a treat, in the form of a new H. P. Lovecraft adaptation. Now, I’ve always had a soft spot for Lovecraft but he’s a hard writer to get up on screen. Mostly, I suspect, because the majority of what he wrote used the short story form so it’s hard to expand out into a feature anyway. Also, Lovecraft’s preoccupation of describing ancient, ‘nameless’ horrors or alluding to the unspeakable things which happen rather than actually giving you full descriptions... the literary equivalent of hiding your monsters in the shadows so nobody can see how bad your creature costume is... doesn’t help potential film-makers when it comes to trying to adapt his stuff. I do, however, tend to enjoy a certain amount of what passes for ‘screen Lovecraft’. I could happily rewatch Die, Monster, Die, a 1965 attempt at bringing The Colour Out Of Space to the screen and I was even tolerant when they insisted on presenting one of his key stories, The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward, as Edgar Allan Poe’s The Haunted Palace... I still don’t know how they got away with that one, though.

So, yeah, I was chomping at the bit to see this new movie but not, necessarily, because it was based on Lovecraft (although that was always going to be one of the plus points) but because this was the triumphant return... and having seen the film I can certainly confirm it is ‘full on triumphant’... of much loved director Richard Stanley. I loved his movies ‘back in the day’ when he directed Hardware and Dust Devil but, it appears that this is the first feature film he’s attempted to make since, by my reckoning, 1992. I’ve seen a few shorts and documentaries by him since then but he’s been hiding in the shadows for a while now due to various reasons, some of them personal, and now somebody has let him have another proper crack at making a low budget feature and... well, good idea. I just wanted to see it regardless because I know how special his first two films are.

So I was delighted to be in attendance at one of the two screenings that Colour Out Of Space got at the London Film Festival this year and even more happy that the great man was in attendance himself, to give an intro to the movie and then get into a question and answer session with the audience afterwards. He’s got one of those hypnotic voices I always find so easy to listen to for long periods of time which, in a way, is just as well because he is a bit of a talker.

So anyway, based on a work by Lovecraft, a writer who Stanley said in the Q & A that his mother got him into at the age of seven, Colour Out Of Space stars Nicholas Cage as Nathan, the head of a secluded homestead in New Orleans where he keeps a farm of tomatoes and alpacas and lives with his wife Thereza, played by Joely Richardson and his three children Benny (played by Brendan Meyer), young Jack (played by Julian Hilliard) and Lavinia (played by Madeleine Arthur).

The film is re-set in modern times but as the film’s ‘outsider’ character, a water surveyor played by Elliot Knight, walks into the forest and finds Lavinia, she is dressed in antiquated looking clothes and standing by her horse as she is trying to ‘summon up a spell’. It’s a lovely opening actually because, it’s not until Knight walks in on her and you can see him wearing modern clothes, that you are able to get a better time fix on the thing. It’s almost like you are looking at something which Roger Corman might have made in the mid-1960s for a minute. Knight’s character is called Ward Phillips which is, of course, a shortening of the original writer’s first two initials, Howard Philips.

Actually, the film is absolutely cluttered with allusions to the life and literature of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, with references to Dunwich and Arkham and all kinds of things. It didn’t bother me too much though because this production is so well put together. I was a little disappointed, truth be told, that the Necronomicon, the fictitious, extremely rare and demonic tome mentioned in many a Lovecraft tale... and quite a few other tales in both literature and film over the years... was reduced to being a small paperback volume in this. I got over it fairly quickly though. There are also a fair few references, I think, to the previous films of Richard Stanley ‘hidden in plain sight’ on occasion, such as the graffiti scrawled on the eldest son’s bedroom wall stating that... “No Flesh Shall Be Spared”... which is, of course, a reference to Hardware.

The film is... and this really isn’t surprising given as it’s Lovecraft... not entirely faithful to the original Lovecraft short. This is a movie and demands changes to be able to pass into this format, especially in a world where every film pretty much has to strive to be commercially popular now. However, unlike a fair few adaptations of the writer’s works, it is actually quite faithful in its own ways to the spirit and basic plot points of the thing. So yes, there are alpacas and crazy, almost Gigeresque... perhaps I should say Cthulhuesque in this case... monsters but various key points are put in place and faithfully maintained to anchor the film firmly in the source material quite overtly and positively so. In terms of modern adaptation, it holds up quite well. I was surprised when I heard the astonishingly low budget for this film too (around 6 million dollars) since it looks way more expensive, I think, than what it was actually put together for.

Beautiful shot set ups, of course, as you would expect form Stanley and the colours are, absolutely wonderful. There’s some nice purples in there. It probably doesn’t help matters for potential directors that, if memory recalls (it’s been at least ten years since I read this and probably twenty more before that even), the ‘colour’ out of space is an alien colour which has no equivalent on Earth so, given the challenge of an impossible colour palette to work around, I think the director here does pretty amazingly well.

I’m not going to say much about the story beats on this one... the meteor, the well etc... because you know, pretty much (and Mr. Stanley said this himself in his Q&A session, after pointing out the difficulties of adapting Lovecraft for the screen) that as far as human characters go it’s almost always going to end in either madness or death (usually both). There is, in fact, a last person standing moment in the film but I think this is very much in keeping with the original short and the nice ‘absence of colour’ in certain parts of the end sequence was also nicely done and enough to distract me on a visual level anyway.

If I had any criticisms of the film then I think, purely going on this first viewing, that things maybe do get a bit over the top towards the end... not in terms of content but in what they ‘show’ of the content. Of course, you expect that of a Nicolas Cage film now anyway but I was amused to hear Mr. Stanley saying, after the film had finished, that Cage “isn’t nearly as crazy as people think he is”. I always suspected as much but, of course, coming from a director as delightfully crazy as Richard Stanley anyway, I’m not 100% sure that’s a stirling endorsement.

Another slight criticism would be the title, which on the print I saw (even though I saw it in rainy England), was written as Color Out Of Space, in the American spelling. However, I did notice that the spelling was written in the English manner on the credit which read something along the lines of... based on the short story The Colour Out Of Space by H. P. Lovecraft... so that kind of mollified me a little. As did the appearance of Tommy Chong in the movie.

Oh... I almost forgot to mention the score by Colin Stetson, which I thought was pretty good. It does call attention to itself in various scenes but I don’t see anything wrong with that and it does well to help maintain a level of unease and strangeness to the proceedings. It’s a nice scene setter too, with the breathtaking opening shots of the surrounding forest before the meteor crashes down made somehow eerie by Stetson’s, almost ‘new age’ moments within the score. I’d grab this one quickly if only the thing was out on a nice CD.

And that’s me pretty much done with Colour Out Of Space and I can’t wait until this thing comes out on Blu Ray (hopefully sooner rather than later). It was a thrill to see a film I’d been really looking forward to more than most others this year and a very special cherry on top of the icing to actually get to see Richard Stanley ‘in the flesh’, as it were.

And that’s also me done with the London Film Festival this year. I’ve seen some truly remarkable films this time around and I had a great time with all of them. Looking forward, now, to the next festival I have tickets for... which is the mini FrightFest Halloween all dayer event at the start of November. Hopefully my ‘film stamina’ will prove its worth as I try and survive from 10am in the morning until 12.30am the next morning, devouring various new horror movies as they flash before my eyes. In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed my coverage of the films I saw at this year’s London Film Festival and normal review service of three a week should resume very shortly, with two new cinema releases up next, fingers crossed. Thanks for reading.

Thursday, 10 October 2019

Synchronic


If You Like
Pineal Colliders...


Synchronic
USA 2019 By Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead

London Film Festival 2019 screening Tuesday 8th October


Okay... so the fourth film in my London Film Festival itinerary this year was a new restoration of Sweet Charity, which was still brilliant although I do have some misgivings about the restoration job on it. If you want to read my old review of this movie, comparing it to Fellini’s original masterpiece Nights Of Cabiria, you can do so here.

My fifth film of this year’s festival was Synchronic, which is the latest of four feature films written and directed by the collaborative team that is Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead and... it’s pretty amazing, truth be told. I’ve reviewed their previous films relatively recently on this blog and you can read reviews of Resolution, Spring and The Endless by clicking on the titles in this sentence. Of their works, my favourite is still Spring but, truth be told, Synchronic runs it a very close second and it even has some ‘A’ list Hollywood actors in this one so, I think the Benson and Moorhead duet’s star is definitely on the rise. This one isn’t, like The Endless, another sideways sequel to their first feature, which is a good thing... it does, however, share some of the same concerns as that but filtered through a much more different plot device.

In fact, this one seems to be just the kind of story that Philip K. Dick would have written and, although it’s not in any way cribbed from his work, I think it’s a perfect tonal fit and it might be one of the best PKD movies which has nothing to do with him out there. And I say that as a measure of just how good this story is and how brilliant the execution of the plot is, rather than as any kind of detrimental side swipe. This movie is phenomenal. So, okay... let me get to a brief plot set up for you.

The film stars Jamie Dornan as Dennis and Anthony Mackie as Steve, two paramedics who have formed a curious, hard edged friendship from their journeys into darkness with each other, coping with patients, often in bad shape, some of whom die on them on, presumably, a daily basis. However, just recently, the two have been coming across a lot of dead, dying or injured people who are spaced out on a new designer drug called Synchronic. They are... and this slowly dawns on Anthony Mackie’s character who the film shifts focus on for about two thirds of the story... finding things anachronistic to the people they are trying to help. Like ancient swords or other strange anomalies which their injured ‘customers’ have supposedly been assaulted with.

Meanwhile, two other things which make the story points blossom are occurring... one is that Steve is dying of a brain tumour, which is making his pineal gland more flexible, like it would be in a teenager... and the other thing is that Dennis’ teenage kid Brianna (played by Ally Ioannides) has disappeared after she is suspected to have taken a dose of Synchronic. As the story develops, however, and Steve finds out more about the drug and takes some himself, he undergoes some strange experiences... which I won’t spoil for you here... which equip him with the means and knowledge to have a good go at getting Dennis’ daughter back. Needless to say, after a series of very entertaining experiments with the drug which effects Steve in a similar way to teenagers, due to the state of his pineal gland, he is able to make an attempt to rescue Brianna and hopefully, save the day.

The performances in this are all superb... especially the three main actors I’ve already pointed out. I’ve especially had my eye on Mackie since I first noticed him in The Adjustment Bureau (reviewed here). I loved him as The Falcon in the all the recent Marvel movies but he really shows he can carry the majority of a film here and he is extra impressive when given a good script (which he has been on this one). I really felt for his character and, also, the characters brought to life from the page by Dornan and Ioannides... this one’s a good three hander, for sure.

Because, like pretty much all of Benson and Moorhead’s work, this story deals with a fantastic concept at it’s heart, it’s important to make the movie feel as credible as possible, so the way this is written and the performances of the lines really help you believe in the relationships at the heart of the film and everyone really knocks it out of the park in terms of that. So when really unbelievable stuff starts happening to Steve, the audience doesn’t need to take the fantasy element of the plot, which is in no way subtle, with too much of a pinch of salt. The incredible is subtly made credible with just a bit of a wink to the audience to suspend their disbelief here. I was, as you can perhaps tell, really impressed with the way the directors handle things here.

I was also impressed with how emotionally involved I was with the characters. One character in particular, other than the daughter, gets lost... not killed, just lost (although that kinda means the same thing here but, again, I’m not going to explain that comment if you haven’t seen it)... in the process of Steve’s search for knowledge of the drug he is dealing with and I really felt that loss. My one disappointment was at the very end... there’s a hugely suspenseful moment where one of the characters is in the process of leaving the frame in a particular fashion and I was desperately hoping they wouldn’t. Well, okay, that seems about right because it turns out that’s what happens after all but... I’m guessing it would have made for a much stronger ending if that wasn’t the case and I hadn’t got my wish. That being said, there's a nice Back To The Future reference at one point in the film in terms of some stuff that's going on and the name of Steve's dog... so I can live with a marginally happyish ending.

That ending is about the only element of the film that did give me pause for thought though so, once again, I am patting my back on somehow choosing six film at this year’s festival with not a dud among them. Synchronic is an absolutely brilliant movie... perhaps not as original as people may expect (what is these days?) but certainly one of the best at capturing a certain kind of science fiction which doesn’t get a chance to shine as much as it perhaps should. I’m really hoping for a Blu Ray release of this one because I would quite like to revisit this movie sometime soon. One for the ages... so to speak.

My review of the next Festival film I saw, Richard Stanley’s Colour Out Of Space, should be up in a few days.

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Wounds



Bugs ‘N’ Kisses

Wounds
Directed by Babak Anvari 2019 UK
London Film Festival 2019 screening Saturday 5th October


For my third film of this year’s London Film Festival, I saw Wounds, which is the second feature length film by the Iranian filmmaker Babak Anvari, known for his previous movie Under The Shadow (which I kinda raved about here). The film is written by the director and based on the novella The Visible Filth by Nathan Ballingrud. It’s also, like his first feature, a horror movie. In the question and answer session after this screening, Anvari said that it was purely an accident that he returned to this genre as he wanted to demonstrate some kind of proficiency with various different kinds of movie genres before returning to horror but, after he was fed a copy of the novella on which this is based, he realised he was so in tune with it and the author (unknown to him at the time but now a good friend) that he had to do this one.

And... I have to say that, although it lands in the same genre as the last one, it really isn’t that much like his debut feature. Similarities would include things like some lovely shot compositions and, as his first film, the sound design plays an important role (yeah, I’ll get to my embarrassment about the sound design later). At a stretch, I’d say another common feature is that it’s starts off as a slow burn before the director ratchets up the intensity... although, in a way, that could be said of a lot of movies.

One main difference, though, apart from this not being a ghost story but more a ‘demonic possession/body horror’ tale, is that he has some real 'A list' Hollywood talent. The film stars Armie Hammer as main protagonist Will, who shows just how intense and edgy he can play here... along with Dakota Johnson as his girlfriend Carrie and the wonderful Zazie Beetz (who I loved in Deadpool 2, reviewed here) as former girlfriend Alicia. All the cast are particular good in this but a new level of respect to these three for being brave enough to see this one through.

Will is a college drop out and one of the main, much loved bartenders at his local pub in New Orleans and the majority of the action of film, with a few notable exceptions, is set either in the bar or in the apartment he shares with Carrie. It was the director’s intent, as he made clear in the Q&A after the film had finished, that he was trying to make a film which started off and looked like one of those 80s relationship movies like Reality Bites, to suck the viewer in before going full horror. He also mentioned, among many influences name checked, his love of the films of David Cronenberg... so you can see exactly how someone like him can arrive at what is a fairly intense and somewhat technologically aware adaptation like this.

I say technologically aware because the peculiar brand of demonic witchcraft gone wrong, if that’s what it is, is passed on by means of a mobile phone left in the bar by some college kids who leave when a fight breaks out. When Will forgets he put the phone in his pocket and takes it home, he starts seeing some strange messages pop up. Using some not too hard to figure out detective work to quickly crack the password in the space of about thirty seconds, he then starts answering some of the texts and it’s not too long before some nasty images start to appear along with all manner of things which threaten the fabric of his and his girlfriends reality... there’s a lovely scene where he comes home and finds her staring into a slow moving portal displayed on her laptop and it takes him putting her into a bath to wake her from her bizarre coma (and that’s not all that happens in that scene but I won’t tell you what happens when he puts her in the bath).

One of the things the director does nicely... and I think it’s this more than anything else in the movie that could be said to be a partial homage to the modus operandi of Cronenberg, is to blur the lines for the audience about the sanity of their main protagonist (that being said, there's a possible armpit growth happening too... flashes of Rabid, reviewed here). He uses little flashes of things like the severed heads of Will’s friends, which Will obviously sees as well as the audience, to start planting doubt in the viewers mind. The director referenced Nicholas Roeg in relation to these moments when he talked to the audience after the movie but in some ways they’re a slightly different kind of association... although, to be fair, since we don’t know how the character of Will progresses after ‘the incident’ which is the final shot of the movie (yeah, like I’m going to tell you what that is here), they could be very much in keeping with Roeg’s flash forward/flash back visions of the history of his characters so, yeah, maybe that was this director’s intent with those almost subliminal moments all along.

Asides from having a good script and some great actors in it, I mentioned the shot designs earlier. This guy likes his verticals and he hasn’t abandoned them here. I’d really need to watch this again to unravel what I was seeing but one of the things I really liked was a shot fairly late in the movie where Will is breaking into his girlfriend’s computer and there is one of those classic fans on the desk. There’s a cool moment where we see Will’s head, with the fan taking up the visual space in front of half his head but, because the blades are moving so fast, we don’t see them at all, just Will’s face. I’m guessing that must have been a hard thing to capture what with film speeds and not getting some kind of motion clash but it made for a nice shot and one wonders if it was some kind of metaphor for the way the character is, quite possibly, becoming immersed in something... evil.

There are also a lot of bugs.

Cockroaches, in fact. These are definitely both a metaphor and an indication in the movie that something bad is coming... they seem to have a homing instinct and are drawn to things which have become ‘demonically touched’ and, according to the director, they were a real pain to work with. There’s a beautiful rendered moment when Will first presses ‘play’ on a video which arrives on the phone which involves the cockroaches attracted to a severed head/skull and, the end moment of this video, where the film takes the first real turn into giving you a sense of the supernatural at work, is a really nicely executed shock idea. I’m sure it’s been done before but not necessarily in this medium and it’s certainly effective here. Again, though, I’m trying to keep this review spoiler free so... go see it yourself, I understand it’s getting a release in a couple of weeks though, sadly, only on the internet and not in a proper cinema or home video release (as yet... what is wrong with this country?).

The other thing in this is the sound design and the... ahem... score. Like his first feature, Anvari uses a powerful blend of soundscapes that help the film along. There’s a nice moment, for instance, where Will is slowly swiping through the phone and, each time he swipes, it’s echoed within the sound design. As I was watching this I found myself desperately hoping for a CD release of the score so I could hear the lovely atonalism of the music better. Imagine my surprise then when, in the Q&A, the director said something along the lines of... “obviously, there was no musical score in the movie, just sound design we created...” So, yeah, I guess nothing was actually ‘composed’ for the movie and that just shows how I’ve become used to modern horror movie music, which a lot of the time tends to sound like this stuff anyway. Oh well. I say this owning an old vinyl copy of the non-musical ‘soundtrack’ of Eraserhead so, yeah, I don’t have that special kind of tunnel vision which says music has to include melody, rhythm and harmony like a lot of people do, I guess.

Still, despite the lack of music, Wounds works a treat and the ending is nicely done. Alas, I wish this was getting a cinematic or Blu Ray release so I could take another look at it but, either way, this film is another strong recommendation from me and something I think will appeal to most fans of horror films. Like The Antenna, which I saw at the London Film Festival the night before (my review of that one is here), this would have done really well at FrightFest this year, although the audience would probably have been a little smaller, I would imagine. Definitely one to watch out for.

Monday, 7 October 2019

The Antenna



Sludge Dread

The Antenna (aka Bina)
Directed by Orcun Behram
2019 Turkey
London Film Festival 2019 screening Friday 4th October


Wow. This was only my second film of this year’s London Film Festival and it’s truly astonishing.

The Antenna is a Turkish, dystopian sci-fi horror movie set in the, presumably, fairly near future. The film mostly follows the antics of Mehmet, a night watchman and maintenance man for a block of flats in a compellingly Orwellian society, as played by Ihsan Önal. However, Mehmet has had some trouble sleeping of late and the looks of Önal in the role really help convey this exhaustion in the character. The make up on him is wonderful, with the huge bags under his eyes giving him an almost cartoonish appearance and a somewhat humorous disposition as he tries to cope with the challenges of one day of watching the building... under the watchful eye of his manager who also lives in the same apartment block and who has heard that Mehmet keeps dozing off on the job.

However, all is not well because today is the day the state have chosen to have one of their new satellite antennae attached to this particular block, so that the residents can see... you get the feeling it is entirely compulsory viewing... the latest propaganda machine at work. The first sign that anything is wrong is when the guy doing the installation falls from the roof with both a sickening thud and good comic timing as Mehmet is looking out the window of his cupboard of an office. He goes to investigate but finds nothing amiss except some black, sludgy stuff leaking from the newly installed kit on the roof. Is this something to do, perhaps, with the black sludge oozing through the walls of one of the tenant’s bathroom? As Mehmet begins to investigate the ensuing oddities, which start off almost as Kafkaesque surrealism before going ‘the full Lovecraft’ as people receive the sludgy transmission into their basic DNA, the deaths start coming too. Is Mehmet the unlikely hero who can save the day or is this weird mix of bureaucratic nightmare coupled with eldritch, Chthuhian horror something which is unstoppable?

Well, obviously I’m not going to tell you but I will say that this film was an absolute joy to watch and, within the first ten minutes, it struck me just why I was responding to it the way I did. Or rather, the nostalgic rush I was getting from it?

That is to say... this movie felt like something straight out of the 1980s. Seriously, you remember when, in the mid 1980s (apologies to younger readers here), you stayed up late past your bedtime to watch something on either Channel 4 or BBC2 and ended up discovering something which completely compelled you to keep watching without understanding why? This film felt just like that. It felt like the first viewing of an early David Lynch movie like Eraserhead, mixed together with something like David Cronenberg’s Videodrome with, just a dash, of government satire thrown in for good measure. I mean, it was that good.

The film is slow paced but... and somehow this works... the director takes these slow paced scenes and cuts them up into sections. So, for example, a very early scene in the film where Mehmet is walking to work reminded me of the scene early on in Eraserhead of Jack Nance walking along the industrial estate in one, long, uncut static shot. Except, here, the director managed to maintain that same atmosphere with lots of cuts and angle changes. And this is something he does all the way through the movie.

As when, in the scene introducing us to Mehmet as he gets up from his bed and irons his clothing. It’s quite meticulously paced but, instead of showing his tiny, cramped space where he performs all these actions in one static shot... which is all we need to get the layout of his quarters in our head... the director shows us the interior from almost every conceivable angle during the sequence. And even though some of the people and objects placed in the frame on the widescreen of the film tend to jump about and jar using this technique, the director seems to ‘get away with it’ quite well in the edit and it rarely pops you out of the action. This must have been a hard film to cut together actually but... yeah, it’s a bit of a masterpiece.

Another thing he does often is hold a shot with a character or object in sharp focus while the main action is taking place in a different part of the screen in the blurred areas. He does this a couple of times and... I’m not quite sure why, truth be told... but it seems to work out really well for him so, no complaints here.

Also, a nice touch is that when a death comes, the director tends to linger on it for a while, showing the real trauma involved. There was one character who I was not expecting to die, to be honest, right in the end sections of the movie. I was certainly expecting the character to live, due to an interaction this person has with Mehmet earlier in the movie but, when death comes and the character is stabbed... after the assailant has walked off scene, the director stays with the victim for quite a while to focus on the ragged and constantly diminishing breathing of the person who has been assaulted. This touch of reality in an otherwise absurd and increasingly incomprehensible, surrealistic nightmare environment is an interesting choice and, perhaps, it’s what gives the film its sense of gravitas towards the end.

The Antenna looks great, is well acted, has some great special effects and some truly ‘low key but effective’ human hybrid creature design. Given my limited experience of Turkish movies, I wasn’t expecting anything near this good from them and it was certainly an eye opener for me. This one may well be my ‘film of the festival’ and I really hope this one gets some kind of commercial, US or UK physical release because I really want to grab this one on Blu Ray when I can. An awesome film of authoritative oppression mixed in with demonic, or possibly alien, collaboration where the stakes are extremely high... this one will haunt you long after it finishes. I must try and catch this astonishing celluloid mystery again at some point soon. Absolute brilliance.

Sunday, 6 October 2019

The Miracle Of The Sargasso Sea



Eel To Reel

The Miracle Of The Sargasso Sea
(aka To thávma tis thálassas
ton Sargassón)

Directed by Syllas Tzoumerkas
2019 Greece/Germany/Netherlands/Sweden
London Film Festival 2019 screening Friday 4th October


The Miracle Of The Sargasso Sea is my first film of six at this year’s London Film Festival and it turned out to be a good choice. I’ve not seen any of the ‘Greek new wave’ movies of recent years other than Dogtooth (which was spectacular, my review here) so I didn’t know quite what to expect but this looked to me like a film with a strong, central female character and... I certainly wasn’t wrong there. Two strong central female roles, in fact. One of these is Elisabeth, played by Angeliki Papoulia, who has been forced to flee the corruption of the police division she was working in ten years prior, transferred to a Greek island with her young son to be the local chief of police. The other is Rita, played by Youla Boudali who co-wrote the screenplay with the director. She plays a member of what I will only describe as a hugely disfunctional family, who’s brother gets murdered at some point in the film.

Starting off very strong with an opening sequence of terrorists being raided by the police, ten years prior to the events depicted in the rest of the film... the story offers up the metaphor that drives it, quite overtly, with a nature documentary being watched by Elsiabeth’s son, talking about eels migrating to the Sargasso Sea every year to give birth and then die. Rita herself works in an eel farm and this, in some ways, re-enforces the metaphor a little. Actually, the fact that this film is showing 'in festival' usually means it’s uncertified as yet but, if it gets a proper release in this country, I think there’s a strong chance the BBFC may want some of the scenes of the actors slaughtering live eels removed. That’s one the good things about seeing films in festival... they’re usually shown uncut.

Anyway, animal atrocities aside, the story that unfolds is of an alcoholic woman in charge of a police force who is every bit as corrupt as the one she left, with herself certainly as brutal and ‘above the law’ as the majority of her fellow officers. As the two leads go about their daily business, the camera follows them and really gets ‘in the face’ of the action. There’s a lot of hand held in this thing and it really adds to the grittiness of the piece as the various characters get up close and personal with the audience. There are times of violence, including but not limited to sexual violence... let’s just say that Rita is, kind of, a submissive personality... but the main take away from these sequences is that they don’t treat the conflict of the characters in a comic book manner. These sequences show the consequence of violence quite clearly on the wonderful make-up jobs of the bloody and pulped faces of the cast and are all the more... well not quite disturbing but certainly effective to get the message across that this kind of brutality is not something you want to be playing with in real life.

The actual disturbing part of this film, for me, was the unmitigated brutality and corruption of the various police agencies. Seriously, these make the 1940s and 1950s Los Angeles cops of James Ellroy’s novels look practically angelic...or they are at least in the same league. There was a question and answer session with both Syllas Tzoumerkas and Youla Boudali after the screening and the truly scary thing was that the two writers were both very familiar with the locales they were writing about and, in terms of the police brutality depicted in this movie, the director commented that his depiction of it was, if anything, not nearly as intense as the reality of the situation in Greece. That’s truly scary and I certainly don’t want to ever get into trouble with the police in that country if I could ever help it (though I suspect the same can be said over here too... it’s just a little more regulated and suppressed, I would guess).

Another thing which hit home is that the solution to the murder at the heart of the film is not arrived at by Elisabeth through a series of logical deductions from lots of clues. Instead, it just falls into her lap as part of some illegally obtained evidence she pretty much confiscates for her own purposes and she just gets lucky. Then, instead of using her power to do what the law requires of her and join the dots, she brutalises a confession out of the guilty party before doing something even more questionable but which is, at least, more about seeing a kind of justice done rather than carrying out the law. Something which, I suspect, is only possible because the dark underbelly of the family unit under investigation reaches right inside her own police force and so the people involved are obviously complicit in the particular brand of justice which she decides to mete out at the end of the movie.

And that’s me done with The Miracle Of The Sargasso Sea. There’s actually a lot to unpack and think about in terms of the central metaphor and the way in which the various characters experience the chaos of their life but that stuff needs to gestate in my brain a while. All I will say is that I hope that The Miracle of The Sargasso Sea gets some kind of uncut release in either the US or UK and that I get the opportunity to have another look at it. Anyone who is into police procedural movies or, more importantly, the way in which a happy family unit can appear to have a few cracks on the outside while, underneath, there is a huge problem, should get a blast out of watching this movie. I’m definitely going to have to track down this director’s other works at some point soon and give them a go.

Thursday, 3 October 2019

VHS Forever - Once Upon A Time In Camden



A Fistful Of Pre-Certs

VHS Forever?
Once Upon A Time In Camden
(aka VHS Forever 2)

UK/USA 2019/20
Directed by Mark Williams
Son Of Bill Productions - Screener


Regular readers of this blog may remember my review, a few years ago, of a low budget British documentary by director Mark Williams called VHS Forever? Psychotronic People (reviewed here). Well, I was recently lucky enough to be contacted by Mark to see if I wanted to take a look at a preview cut of his new sequel to this film, VHS Forever? Once Upon A Time In Camden. So of course I said yes and I think my main takeaway from this one is probably going to be... when can I get my hands on a legitimate copy of this on DVD or Blu Ray so I can re-watch it without the time code? The answer to which is, apparently, sometime around the start of next year.

This film is pretty much more of the same in terms of the kind of content as the last movie but, for my money, I think this one is a little better than the first. Shot in the Electric Ballroom during and after, by the looks of it, a day of the Camden Film Fair (I failed to see myself walking around in the background), this one has the usual mix of people sharing their treasured memories of buying ‘hard to get’, mostly pre-certificate video tapes ‘back in the day’ (mid 1980s to early 1990s?) but it mostly concentrates on the three different incarnations of the Psychotronic Video Store in London. Two incarnations of the store were in Camden and... I think the other was in that dodgy street near Tottenham Court Road behind where the old Virgin megastore used to be. The term Psychotronic was, as many of you will probably know, filched from the old Psychotronic Guides that Michael Weldon used to put out... goodness knows where my old copy went to but it was a thick brick of a book so I don’t think I could have easily lost it.

Added into the mix of this one is also a load of guest speakers who actually are important movers and shakers in their own right and so their words and insights into... not just the original shops and their passion for horror and exploitation movies but also the people, often larger than life characters who ran the shops... is the real deal. So, yeah, you have guests like horror illustrator extraordinaire Graham Humphreys; the founder of Eastern Heroes magazine Ricky Baker; David Gregory, the co-founder of the amazing Severin Films in the US (who seems to be from Nottingham, I didn’t know that) and Jane Giles, former Scala programmer and author of the incredibly important tome Scala Cinema 1978 - 1993 (which has my name in the back of the book alongside all the other kickstarter people listed, so I should probably get around to reading this gorgeously rendered document at some point soon... watch out for a review on this blog).

It even has a few words from Paul Brown, who has been running the Camden Film Fair and its sister fair at Conway Hall for quite a while now... so it was nice to see him talking on here because I always grab stuff from him when I can and he’s definitely one of ‘the good guys’. Actually, one of the guests here makes the point that, with one of the guys who ran Psychotronic having a stall at the fair, the Camden Film Fair has almost become, in its bi-monthly ‘one day only’ shows, the modern equivalent of going to the old Psychotronic shop... although the VHS format itself is not as prevalent as the other media on offer there.

To me, this was a lot more satisfying than the first film because of the way it’s been edited together although, I recognise that the style here is somewhat different and I suspect the decision on the way it’s been spliced is going to divide people. I prefer it because the chunks with each guest are longer or, rather, perceived as longer because it doesn’t cross-cut between various talking heads... instead, it mostly stays with each person and allows their stories to come across uninterrupted (although there’s a nice moment when a lady walks in front of the camera, which is quite funny). Now, I found this to be a much better way of hearing the various stories here because it gives the recollections time to breathe and come to life naturally but, I’m guessing some people might prefer a more dynamic editing style cutting between people on various thematic points. Not this viewer though, so I was much more impressed.

There are, of course, various clips and artworks of covers, posters and fanzines edited into parts of the frame to liven up some of the sequences and these are a nice addition but not totally necessary. That being said, if you’ve never seen some of these old covers and clips before, you’ll probably get more out of this.

My favourite bits were the almost unanimous shared experiences of the majority of the people interviewed having been well ‘under age’ when they first started buying their highly dodgy, often third generation copies of various, ‘less than legitimate’ future video nasties and exploitation titles. That and the genuinely charming testimony of the guy who first started going to the shop to fuel his interest in blaxploitation movies but ended up having his mind and tastes expanded by the huge cornucopia of bizarre material available, coupled with the community spirit of the people who used to frequent the store. That was a nice section to include here.

And that’s me done on this one. If you liked the first movie, VHS Forever? Psychotronic People, then it goes without saying that you’ll also get a blast out of VHS Forever? Once Upon A Time In Camden. And even if you didn’t know the times, locale and spirit of this particular slice of the VHS phenomenon first hand, then I’d still say you might get something good out of it... dare I call it ‘valuable insight’ into a time long gone and a species of movie collector who is, perhaps, like the dinosaurs, dying out to make way for a new and slightly different, if no less avid, breed of exploitation movie connoisseur (I think it’s fair to say that, with the present DVD and Blu Ray market, cinephiles have never had it so good). As far as I’m concerned... and I won’t beat around the bush here... this is, like the first movie, an important document of a particular time and place in history which both modern collectors and casual buyers would be richer for knowing about. Even though I’ve seen it, I’m going to be one of the first in line to pick up a copy of this on a shiny disc when it comes out next year and I’d urge you to look out for it when it does get released ( I believe it’s actually getting a VHS release first). I thoroughly enjoyed this one.

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

The Coming Of Sin



May The Horse Be With You

The Coming Of Sin
Spain 1978
Directed by José Ramón Larraz
Arrow Blu Ray Zone B


The Coming Of Sin... also known as The Violation Of The Bitch, Sodomia, Vice Makes A Visit and a whole host of alternate titles depending in which countries it had some kind of cinematic or home release in various different versions (usually very cut in different ways depending on the whims of different censorship boards) is the third and final film in Arrow’s excellent, recent Blood Hunger - The Films Of José Larraz box set. It’s a movie I’ve seen stills and snippets from in various documentary shows over the years and, without remembering the title or director, it’s always eluded me. So it came as a bit of a surprise when Arrow announced it in a shiny new, totally uncut Blu Ray restoration for sale in the UK.

So I finally get to see it and... yeah, interesting film.

Briefly put, the film is set in Spain on the estate of a rich, single, English artist called Lorna, played by Patricia Granada. She is asked to ‘take in’ a new helper, a young gypsy girl called Triana, played by Lidia Zuazo, as her previous owners are returning to England for a bit. She agrees and from that moment, an erotic undercurrent takes hold of the film as Triana and Lorna develop a sapphic bond but Triana also suffers from horse infested dreams, possibly brought on by a man who wants her sexually. This includes the famous image of her naked in a cutaway of the back half of a horse which said horseman rides around in preparation for the horse to mount the sculpture and penetrate the woman inside.  And did I mention that this guy, called Chico and played by Rafael Machado, likes to ride everywhere around the vicinity of Lorna’s dwelling, naked on his horse? And I must say, he is kind of imposing in his terrifying reign of naked horsemanship, as he gallantly gallops nakedly about the Spanish landscape nuding everybody up!

Triana seems at first terrified of Chico, due to a prophecy from a gypsy palm reader and that seems totally justified when Chico tries to rape her in the forest. He gets brained with a rock for his trouble but the horse is fine. After this, Chico also becomes an object of fascination for Lorna and, although Triana is still very rude to him, he forms the last part of a ménage à trois between the three protagonists/antagonists and it’s a very Larraz kind of movie, it has to be said. At least, it seems to me, his concerns in this of a tension filled sexual relationship triangle is certainly something which similarly infuses the other films in this boxed set,  Whirlpool (reviewed here) and Vampires (reviewed here).

And it’s not hard to watch because, as somewhat sleazy as the subject matter is, Larraz manages to make it look absolutely beautiful, in his own unique way. Even from the opening which starts off with a series of shots of the estate which takes us in to show Lorna painting, the camera lingering on various paintings in her estate, we know we are in the hands of a filmmaker with a specific vision. It’s an almost claustrophobic series of establishing shots and visual introductions to the character in a film where Larraz really uses the shapes and textures filling the frame to create visual areas specifically for the people in shot. Such as a brilliant scene where Lorna strips off to rub lotion on her body before masturbating. Her back is to the left of camera but the rest of the shot is split into three vertical planes with the central plane being a full length mirror which shows us the front top of her body. There’s some nice stuff going on in this film visually and it’s one of the reasons why I quite like what I’ve seen of this director so far.

I also like the way Larraz uses silent visual metaphor to make a commentary on the internal, psychological state of the characters and the situations they find themselves in. Such as lingering on the expression of a person in a painting or, in an extended flamenco dance sequence, whittled down considerably in some versions of the film, where he uses it as a nod to the growing sexual desire between the two women. I loved the ending too... which also seems to be typical of the kind of darker story beats Larraz likes to explore cinematically. It almost made me forgive the horrible Spanish guitar music which serves as a soundtrack for the film a lot of the time... that’s really not a ‘sound’ I particularly enjoy.

Now, when the film started, I noticed a certain graininess about it and, it has to be said, this never really lets up during the course of the movie. However, after having watched one of the extras in which one of the people who worked on this does a comparison between this and pretty much every other home video version that’s been released before it... well, I really can’t complain. This is pretty much the best the movie has ever looked and, I suspect, is likely to look. So if you want to see this one, definitely get this Arrow edition.

And talking of extras, Arrow have done themselves proud again and, among the gems found on this release, there’s an interview with one of Larraz friends and sometimes co-worker Simon Birrell which is an absolutely fascinating insight into both the man and the world in which he inhabited in later life. Also, there’s a really wonderful short film written and directed by Birrell called His Last Request (aka El último deseo) included, which Larraz helped out on a little and, it has to be said, it’s well worth a watch. It’s a black and white silent movie with a fetishistic undercurrent and a wonderfully satisfying ending starring the great Jack Taylor, who genre fans may remember from some classic horror and exploitation films such as Dr. Jekyll VS The Werewolf, Female Vampire and The Ghost Galleon (the third of the Blind Dead movies).

And that’s about all I have to say on The Coming Of Sin. It’s another absolutely hypnotic and dream-like Larraz movie which I won’t forget about in a hurry and I would urge anybody interested in these kinds of movies (I understand they’re not for everyone) to invest in a copy of this wonderful Blu Ray set from Arrow while it’s still available. This one was absolutely money well spent.

Sunday, 29 September 2019

Ready Or Not



Ready, Play Her, Run

Ready Or Not
Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett
2019 Canada/USA
UK cinema release print.


Warning: Very mild spoilers on one of the deaths.

Ready Or Not was a film I took a hard pass on when it played at FrightFest earlier in the year. Why? Well, because the concept is old and tired out and the trailer made it look really bad. However, by the time it got a general release in the UK, I was really looking forward to it. This is because I’d spent a fairly pleasant half an hour talking to a horror film critic (and nice guy), sitting on the little inner wall which goes around Leicester Square, opposite what we all still call the Empire cinema and exchanging views on various horror movies we both loved. He said that the reaction to Ready Or Not at FrightFest had been overwhelmingly the best audience reaction he’d ever seen at a screening ever and he said it was an absolutely brilliant movie. So I knew I would have to get around to it at some point and I was aware it would be getting a general cinema release a month or so after FrightFest. That being said, he also said something which I’m still kind of mulling over and trying to make sense of. In terms of this film I think this is a bit of a red herring and I wish I’d have known that when he told me... that the film has one of the best twist endings ever which “you will absolutely not see coming”. Well... I’ll tackle that thorny issue in a little while.

Ready Or Not is a movie which really shouldn’t be as watchable as it is. Kind of a souped up version of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little N... oh wait, I’m not allowed to call books by their original, racially problematic titles anymore because modern people are unable to wear historically contextual blinkers, it would seem. Let me try that again then... it’s kind of a souped up version of the Agatha Christie book which would later come to be known as both And Then There Were None and Ten Little Indians at various times but with no skimping on the goriness which can often be a part and parcel of murderous violence... and with a big, campy dose of comedy thrown in for good measure. A cocktail combining these elements and then liberally mixed with a big jug of The Most Dangerous Game (aka The Hounds Of Zaroff).

The film concerns a couple getting married... Grace, played by Samara Weaving and Alex Le Domas, played by Mark O'Brien, who is part of a fictional family, the Le Domas gaming empire. Traditionally, the couple are married in front of the Manor House the family makes their home, which they do and, also traditionally, they have to play a game starting at midnight to become properly part of the family... which they do and which is where this movie gets its title from. The ritual involves the new bride pulling a card from an antique box which tells the family what game they will be playing that night. Quite often it’s something normal like Backgammon or Old Maid but, every now and again, a bride will pull the ‘bad’ card. The card which helps fulfill the family pact with the devil which allowed the gaming empire to become rich and prosperous in the first place. When this card is pulled, the bride or groom, whoever the new family member is, is not made aware of all the rules, often until it is too late. So of course, Grace pulls the one card that her new husband has feared she might... Hide And Seek.

So she has to go and hide and stay hidden without being found until dawn. What she isn’t told.... but finds out soon after, is that the rest of the family, coming ready or not after a count of one hundred, are armed to the teeth and need to wound or maim her long enough to bring her back and perform a sacrificial ritual on her, offering her life for their continued charmed existence or, if they fail, they themselves will die. It doesn’t take long for Grace to find this little twist to the rules out, however... and so the film becomes a grimly humorous game of cat and mouse where Grace is fighting for survival amongst a clan of psychotic killers who mean her some considerable harm.

And it’s nicely done. There are some hugely funny shots of humour injected into the thing, such as a running joke where ‘the help’ keep getting accidentally and horrendously killed by the family (including Grace herself, who manages to ‘take out’ one of the house staff by crushing her in a dumb waiter). There are also some genuinely edgy moments of suspense and little, sharp punctuations of violence which help pile on the odds as Grace tries to outrun the various family members... one such moment being when she is trying to escape a pit in the goat shed where the skeletons of other victims of the game have been left to rot over the decades.

It’s also nicely acted. There’s not a bad one in the cast which includes the always watchable Andie MacDowell and Adam Brody (who played the puzzlingly adult version of Captain Marvel Jr in the recent SHAZAM! movie, which I reviewed here). And special mention to Nicky Guadagni who plays a wonderful character called Aunt Helene who has, frankly, the best, comically outrageous, permanently grumpy stare to her face ever and who livens up every scene with just her bad mood in general.

It’s a fun film but my one disappointment comes, well not from the film itself but, with what I was told about the ending with it’s wonderful, revealing twist. And the reason for that disappointment is...

There is no twist.

No reveal at all. Everything plays out, surprisingly predictably all the way through. This film has absolutely no surprises... you know just when Grace will be caught to further the next bit of the story and, if you’ve been listening to the family history at all, you’ll almost certainly know how various people are going to die in the film's last ten minutes. It’s all right there in the dialogue and... yeah... I still can’t see what the guy meant by a final twist. I don’t think there’s any pretense of a reveal even... the story just plays out exactly how you think it will and then it finishes. You know just who will be the ‘final girl’ of the movie and, while it shouldn’t work, the film is so nicely written in terms of dialogue and the performance of it by an incredible team of skilled actors, that you don’t really care how old and jaded the plot is. Meanwhile, I’m still puzzling over what could possibly be thought of as a final twist. It kind of got my hopes up that something new was coming and... it didn’t.

That aside though, fans of both the slasher thriller and horror genres should take a look at Ready Or Not, which combines both those genres and has a fun time doing it. I’d even recommend it to people who aren’t into those kinds of movies because the goriness is not, too excessive and it’s almost always used to elicit a laugh rather than to shock. It’s a slight movie in terms of having much to say about anything (even family politics) but it’s good for an evening’s entertainment at your local cinema and the few audience members who I saw it with in the almost empty screening on opening night all seemed appreciative of it and there were a lot of laughs. Not sure it’s something I’d watch again but good for a one off watch, for sure.

Thursday, 26 September 2019

The Numbers



When Your Number’s Up

The Numbers
Written and directed by Andrew Elias
Ciao Handy Films. Available on Amazon Prime


The Numbers is a fairly recent ‘novella’ of a horror movie (moviella?), written and directed by Andrew Elias and it’s one of those movies which showcase exactly what the British do best... make relatively fun and entertaining films on what was probably a more than modest budget.

It’s rare I watch films like this (or am given the opportunity, to be honest) but I’m glad I managed to see this one because I’ve been following Andrew and his company on Twitter for a while now and it’s always good to see what some of the people you follow have been up to. This film seems to be trying and, for the most part succeeding, in catching the lightning in a bottle that was last done in this country successfully in the late 1960s and early 1970s. That is to say, we have almost a pseudo-portmanteau horror film but with a thread that runs through each chapter and fashions it together as one arc. You know, the kind of movie that Amicus and Tigon studios were so good at pulling off back in the day.

The Numbers
starts with some nicely striking opening titles which have a beautiful piece of demonic music courtesy of composer Reg Length playing through as the camera hones in on some white cliffs at a, possibly, ‘day for night’ version of  twilight and then, through the miracle of distracting the viewer with superimposed clouds, to a mansion house and then on through a window to a man played by Andrew Elias himself. This first and very short sequence is labelled up as 1912, which is when the action takes place and it bookends the movie. This segment is also dialogue free (up until the last shot when we revisit it at the end of the movie) and it shows a man waiting for something uncertain and reading a book called, An Evil Motherhood. Which might possibly explain what he’s waiting for.

Every now and again we are made aware of the presence of his servant within the house but the way the sound is designed and the faceless path of the servant sometimes being used almost as a jump scare in terms of rushing by very fast in the foreground of the camera or staying close to an edge of the frame, is already using the language of the horror movie within its DNA. The first part of the segment ends when the main character finds a calling card on his noticeboard for a fortune teller called Madame Mimi.

The shot style of the movie is fairly clean and, quite often, favouring centre oriented set ups. There’s no clutter to the set dressing (something which sometimes works in favour of a scene and, sometimes not) and the whole thing gives off a very measured and self assured kind of pacing. There are also a lot of browns and blacks used in this opening sequence and a nice colour palette is established here but, of course, that palette is changed and pitched differently depending on which section of the movie you are watching.

The next chapter starts, as do they all, with a time check in terms of the year and a seemingly random number which will have some significance later on in the chapter... the second sequence is called 1955 - Twelve. This section concerns a young woman who is, as she tells her friend who works in a restaurant, going to see a fortune teller and we can see that her card is exactly the same one we just saw in the film’s 1912 opening, implying that the fortune teller in question is either ageless and therefore extending her life through supernatural means or, possibly, she’s travelling in time... but I place less stock in that second theory since the film is tonally slanted with a good old fashioned horror vibe.

The meeting with the fortune teller does not go as planned and the customer ends up being told she is going to die when the hands of the clock point north. So the majority of this section, which is again mostly dialogue free, gloriously so, is the woman waiting in a room and killing time until the perceived hour of her death. One of the things she does while she’s waiting is read a book called The Devil In Woodford Wells by Howard Hobson, which is important to the next mini story in the film (and which is, in fact, a real book). She leaves the fortune teller’s card in this before the end of the episode, which takes place in a wonderfully red corridor and lift area, almost, it seemed to me, trying to capture tonally the spirit of Stanley Kubrick from his film The Shining.

The woman, is played by Lilly Driscoll, doing a wonderful job throughout her short, especially when it comes to the solo scenes. The fortune teller, Madame Mimi, is played by someone called Peyvand Sadeghian and she’s one of those actresses who seems to be able to bring a certain, playful yet forceful presence to a role. She’s well cast as the fortune teller, who appears in all the segments of the story without, as you would expect from the set up, ageing at all.

So the second chapter is called 1983 - Six and it concerns a composer played by Nicky Stephens. He can’t get the last part of a composition he’s working on and swears a lot throughout the segment, although he’s probably the most likeable character in the film. When he goes to a second hand/Antiquarian bookshop to help clear his block, he stumbles across the same copy of The Devil In Woodford Wells from the previous segment and, of course, finds the card and goes to the fortune teller, Madame Mimi. This is probably my favourite segment of the movie, to be honest and I love the little Faustian deal references symbolised by the purchase of the book in question (with a crisp, one pound note... aaah, I remember those). There’s also a terrific denouement in this section which, I really should have seen coming but... just didn’t. So that was cool.

That being said, there is, I think, at least one anachronism in the book shop scene, where a poster for the reissue/film re-release tie in album for The Beatles Yellow Submarine is the poster from a decade or two after the time setting on this segment. However, I do like this sequence in the bookshop and absolutely loved the use of colour in this scene. Where the orange covers of the old paperback Penguin Classics are echoed in the shirt of the bookseller and in the tie of one of the other customers.

I also loved a scene where the composer is playing the piano and all of a sudden the diegetic source music of said piano transforms, after the introductory bars, into a version with all the synthesised instruments in place, as if we can hear what the composer is hearing in his head as he finds his tune. Lovely stuff and, hold that thought because the director does the same thing only in reverse at the start of the next segment, again presumably using composer Reg Length’s remarkably fun score.

Okay, so the third sequence is called 2018 - Zero and it involves a jogger, played by Howie Cobby, who we are introduced to as he runs along some sandy cliffs. Here, the music on Length’s score matches the pace and time setting of the segment with some up tempo, almost techno music. However, in a reversal of the technique used in the earlier scene, we have the non-diegetic soundtrack turning into diegetic source music as we come to realise the music is also what’s being pumped through Cobby’s earphones as he’s running.

And, of course, when he trips and falls on the sand, as his character seems prone to do for some reason, he stumbles upon an almost empty wallet half buried there with, you guessed it, Madame Mimi’s card inside. And this is where the film gets even more interesting... when he takes the card to the pub and has a chat with the landlady there to seek her advice, played really nicely by a lady named Jo Burke. The pub landlady starts telling Cobby about her former experience with an on-stage fortune teller and, as she does so, she is transported into an empty scenario of the theatre where this event happened, along with the ambient sounds of the memory she is recalling. It reminded me a little of Fellini, actually, in terms of where films like the glorious Nights Of Cabiria (reviewed here) would have a brief diversion from the tone of the rest of the movie. Specifically the scene where Cabiria goes up on stage during the hypnotist act and the film kind of stops dead and takes a little tour into another kind of magic before continuing on its course. I loved the whole feel of the scene as Andrew Elias presents it in The Numbers and it’s just one of many quirky little moments that give the film a real lift.  And stuff like this, coupled with a truly beautiful, overhead shot of Cobby running along the top of the cliff, is another thing which marks this director out as a having a visually unique way of putting a sequence together. Not to mention being one of the reasons why films like The Numbers deserve to get a proper cinematic release, instead of wallowing in the world of the electronic download... but I’m not going to get into that here.

After this sequence plays out, we end with a brief epilogue taking us back to that opening sequence, this time with its full title revealed as being... 1912 - Two. Once again, I’m not going to tell you where this sequence ends up but I will say that the last shot of the film, which I mentioned briefly earlier, does leave, perhaps, more questions than answers and it’s nice to know that Elias is one of those story tellers who prefers not to spoonfeed his audience and allows them to either work things out themselves or bring their own baggage and interpretations into the mix. At least, that’s the way it seems to me.

But don’t take my word for it, check it out for yourself. The Numbers can be purchased or rented at Amazon on this link here and the Ciao Handy Films trailer for The Numbers can be found on YouTube here.